The 25 best symphonic metal albums

1. Emperor - In The Nightside Eclipse (1994)

Founding duo Ihsahn and Samoth had tentatively tinkered with creepy background synth in demo band Thou Shalt Suffer in 1991, but with Emperor’s much-delayed debut LP (recorded in summer ’93, released in ’94) these teenaged Norwegian wunderkinder were confidently blowing open new vistas of imperial grandiosity in black metal. 

Keyboards were sharply divisive in the early 90s metal scene; on Iron Maiden’s 1985 video Behind The Iron Curtain, Bruce Dickinson declared to a fan, “You can’t play heavy metal with synthesisers”, and although Maiden started dabbling with synths just a year later, it’s a flippant dictum to which metal purists held firm, many even remaining sniffy about Floridian death metallers Nocturnus for their novel use of a full-time keyboardist. 

With In The Nightside Eclipse, however, Emperor singlehandedly changed that perception. Suddenly all those dull childhood piano lessons paid off for a generation of metalheads now encouraged to bring their Casio home organ to rehearsal, on the basis that a bit of fake pipe organ and simulated string stabs guaranteed instant lavish atmospherics.

To be fair, these weren’t the most sophisticated symphonics ever heard on a metal album. As the record’s producer Eirik ‘Pytten’ Hundvin confirmed to us in 2019, primitive synth samples were laboriously patched into a 16-track recorder, linked via a timecode-reading device through the sound modules of an Atari computer. By the standards of Ihsahn’s later performances for Emperor and his own solo work, the frontman’s keyboard arrangements here might seem a restrained embellishment. But their impact on this material, on this recording, and on black metal as a whole, was colossal; the symphonic strain of Nightside’s tumultuous soundscape was its most powerfully haunting and hypnotic aspect, sweeping the listener into the night sky towards the moonlit realm of Necrolord’s stunning cover art.

However primitively achieved, the placing of the symphonic elements within the album’s soundscape was a painstaking process; Ihsahn told us in 2017 they remixed The Majesty Of The Night Sky 17 times. In addition, the hummable simplicity of the pseudo-orchestral and choral melodies were their resounding strength, helping symphonic BM classics such as The Burning Shadows Of Silence, Beyond The Great Vast Forest, Inno A Satana and I Am The Black Wizards take flight with an epic immensity that reshaped many priorities across the extreme metal scene, expanding the horizons of black metal to give this ugly, minimalistic cult sound a profound longevity and artistic flair.

“We wanted to create music that sounded fucking larger than life,” Ihsahn said. “That’s why we put all those keyboards in, all that reverb – we wanted it to sound like a soundtrack to the most epic, violent, dark movie! It was almost delusions of grandeur in an artistic sense. With our music we wanted to paint endless dark forests with a constant full moon, and to live that fantasy.” Every time we enter In The Nightside Eclipse, that fantasy lives again.

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